Friday, September 5, 2014

Jumping Ship

It was easy to be seduced by a starry night.  The old girls felt so alive there was a chance they might never sleep again.  At least that’s what happened to two friends afloat in the Sea of Cortez.
              The shipmates were waiting for the dolphins to dance across the surface of the water and they are waiting along the multiple decks of the yacht.  It was after midnight.  Because the sea shines at midnight, you can see the ripples across the surface, the waves roiling around the ripples, and wet, slick, dark bodies slicing through the waves, they couldn’t tell the size of the animals at night, all you could see was patches of slick, sleek bodies in the water  for  the gals standing on the third deck.
            Most of the people aboard were American tourists who were visiting the southern reaches of the Baja Peninsula in the search for big adventure—on the lookout for whales and dolphins. Gail and Sherry were standing on the second deck, dressed in Cabo chic—cotton tees, shorts, and flip flops, watching the light trails in the dark water.
            It had been a glorious day.  The travelers saw dozens of dolphins earlier, gamboling in the waves, savoring the sun, knowing that they were putting on a show. The women dreamt of touching the dolphins, and then touching them again, and then again.  Again. Then they dreamt of the animals touching them back, nuzzling, and communicating with those sweet, squeaky, dolphin sounds.   Who knew that animals, especially wet ones, were so lovely, so sweet?  Both women had fallen utterly in love with those animals.  They could hardly breathe with excitement and would be dreaming about this for rest of their lives, then perhaps for some time after that. Gail told the story as many times as people listened.  Sherry will wear a little solid gold dolphin on a thin gold chain the rest of her life.
             It was late, after midnight.  The glistening sea mesmerized; the girls could not look away, even when it was dark out, even if they didn’t know what was really there.
            “Think we should?” Gail asked.
            “Oh, yeah.”  Sherry breathed.
            Over the railing they leapt, grabbing hands, so they wouldn't lose each other in the water, and then dropped feet first into the diamond-embedded sea.  The women paddled close to the dark shapes in the water where the fish bodies slid past them in the spangled waves.
            But something was not right.  Dozens of animals were in the water with them; but they weren’t the right . . . shape?  These were too big, way too big.
              Their little trip off the deep end sat off every alarm on the boat.  Immense searchlights traced patterns across the surface of the sea.  They revealed every fluid ounce, every surface inch of seawater.  The sailors were startled out of ten year's hard living, scared to the point of breathlessness, yelled in Mexican Spanish at the top of their lungs, telling Sherry and Gail to swim back towards the ship.  Those boys gave deeper meaning to their words, they were insistent, loud, and urgent.
Turns out, the animals were not those friendly little dolphins; they were way too big and there were too many.
They were sharks.
Sherry and Gail leapt into a sea full of sharks.
Great big ones.
These massive sharks were harmless, otherwise. . .  They were whale sharks, who inhaled plankton—they don’t actually bite or chew, anything.  The big guys were remarkably well fed in the Sea of Cortez; in no way were they interested in a late night snack.   At any rate, they weren’t the great whites, or the black demons, or a magalodon (a mythological shark from the era of dinosaurs), although the whale sharks were big, scary, and mysterious, enough at any rate.
The sharks inhaled the women’s scent molecules in through their gills, but they didn't turn around, didn't slow down, and didn’t swirl around them, perhaps determining an attack.  Sherry and Gail were not screaming in peril nor are they flailing in the sea, they were calm and . . . beguiled.  There was danger none-the-less, the girls could be caught by the edge of the tail or a flipper, and flung into the next eternity. 
Just so, the nuzzling dream evaporated.  And their quick dip in the Sea of Cortez turned out to be that—quick.
The captain called their names from the front of the boat, wondering if he needed to leap into the water, worried that he needs to beat off dozens huge sharks with his bare hands to save these two beautiful American ladies.  The crew lowered a lifeboat.  But the sharks were unengaged and he was relieved. Our sweet girls were lifted up in the lifeboat.  The captain was shouting orders, right, left, and center, loud and fast. 
Back on deck, the two women were wrapped in fluffy white towels and the captain marched up to them and screamed, “What were you thinking?”
They didn't have an answer and were chagrinned to have created such a fuss.  Whenever they tell the story now, they  are chagrinned, still.
Not the first time our girls have jumped feet first into a pool of sharks.
They are women who get the right things right so much of the time. But this experience will keep them grounded in the sweet, deep heart of humility for the rest of their natural lives.
But more than that, their worst mistake melted into their best story.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What Moms Do

“Aw, Mom,” A.J. wailed.

A.J. and his Mom, Juanita, were discussing a trip that A.J. had fixed in his mind. An ardently opinionated kid, A.J. had middle-of-the-back hair, a booming voice, the physique of a 30-year-old, all of it directed by I.Q. points in the 160 range, and a fifteen-year-old body. The kid was a handful.

The trip involved the purchase of an aging van, enough to hold six or seven other fifteen-year-old-boys, all of them wanting to travel unsupervised around the Pacific Northwest. At the least, those boys were dreaming of beer and girls.

Of course, Mom would, according to A.J., pick up the costs, van and all, because, you know, fifteen-year-old boys don't have jobs.

“I've been thinking about the trip,” Juanita said. “I think it could be a great experience. You'll learn a lot.” She paused for effect. “But I'd want to go too. I get carsick and throw up fairly often, so I'd need to ride shotgun. But I can give you directions and advice, quite a bit actually.”

Aw, Mom.

A week or so later, Juanita mentioned the trip again. “I was talking to Barb about your trip, and she wants to go. I know she looks like a literary fuddy-duddy, but she's fun sometimes, well, maybe not most of the time. She's just the least bit incontinent, so we'll have to stop every twenty minutes, maybe every fifteen minutes, give her a poop and pee stop. Or as close to that as we can get. She's not afraid of going potty in the bushes, so that won't be a problem.”

“Uh. ” A.J. didn't finish the sentence.

Later in the month, Juanita continued the conversation, “A.J., your grandmom wants to come too. She's spry-for a 93-year-old, don’t you think? The thing is, she can only ride for an hour at a pop, maybe a little less. So we could go that far in the morning and then again in the afternoon. You'd have to go slow over the mountain passes, and along the rivers, like 15-miles-an hour slow, because she cries if you drive any faster. We'd need to stay in nicer places, you know how fussy she can get, and those can be pricey, so talk to the guys about that. Plus she goes to bed at 6:30, so we'd have to be quiet so she can rest. She doesn't snore all that loud.”

Another pause, one A.J. was braced for.

“OK, she’s thunderous.”


Juanita was not the first mother to use sneakery, perhaps trickery to corral a willful son.

Nor the last.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


It takes a number of exposures to a star's performance, usually, before you begin to track who they are and what they do.  We remember Robin Williams from his first explosion on screen.  He was wild, he was wacky, he was a singularity.  And he held our attention from the first second, to the last. I saw him on Happy Days, and knew we were on a ride.

He started off a favorite. a squirrelly little guy with boundless energy, pin pointing our faults, our stars, our hopes, our dreams, the places where we needed some work: where hubris took over, where money bought us access to the thing we should NOT be having, where love stopped short.  We loved him. Instantly, Insanely. Incredibly.   It was a love that stuck.

His movies were wonderful, although the directors corralled him too closely, and one was dark, too dark.  Now that I think about it, that one probably mirrored his inner self.  I'm so sorry about that.

Loved that as he aged he became a triathlete, a place for all that energy.  Loved that he loved kids, that he was a dad.  Loved that he performed for the troops, didn't take himself so seriously, loved that he gave so much money away.  Loved that he turned out to be a good man, a gentle man, a man packing around a good heart.  In. Spite. Of. It. All.

Yeah, loved that.

Watched him dazzle Dave Letterman and Jay Leno, who had no words, who did have the good sense to just shut up and let him go.  And go, he did.

So here are my lessons in his passing:   That serious mental illness can co-exist with extraordinary talent, wild genius and a good heart.  It takes all of a man to harness that energy and make it work, at least most of the time.  

My guess is this:  that his depression, black as it was, became unbearable, unmanagable, irretrievable.  He lost sight of his own goodness and his own power.  I've been sad.  We all have been sad. Sad that his life was lost too early.  Sad that he had to suffer endlessly and to pretend that he was not.  

I asked God if he caught him on the fly.  He said He did and took him home, wrapped him in a blanket of love, acceptance, and sweet peace.  Made hot cocoa and an apple pie for him, hugged him hard until the pain melted away.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Telling A Story

A few years ago,  I was at a  party standing next to a novelist and a television journalist.  Both were well known in our area.  "G," I said, "I just figured this out; you lie for a living."  He had a sly smile, creeping through a well trimmed beard.  "Me too!"  The journalist said.  And we all went away happy.

So, I'm joining their camp.  But I might be doing them one better.

I'm writing fiction, the bad kind.  A lot of people think that literary fiction is the epitome of the writing craft and some people write really great literary fiction, two of them are friends, Steven Mayfield and Judith McConnell Steele. Bless them.  They are right.

The rest of us just want to write genial books that tell a great story.  We don't mind car chases and sex scenes.  In my case, my heros are 60-plus women, and although sex is still part of their lives, we won't be playing that out on anybody's camera of the mind.  We won't snicker if somebody       Harry & Oliver, respositories of my grandfathers'          
encloses a recipe or we lapse into purple             spirits.  Regal story tellers, both of them.
prose in a  given instant.  If there's an inside
joke somewhere, well, we'll see where it leads.
We welcome adventure, risk,
the good/bad conflict, true love, puppies.

You get the drift.

                               The little guy with the nose?  My anti-procrastination device.  
                                                       Got him at an Art Fair in Santa Cruz.  Works.

I'm well into my first book.  A few years ago I was reading a science book, a beloved one, and there was an artifact that struck such a chord, all the chimes went off,  About the same time, a cousin had done a generational chart going back to the 1700s, maybe a little further.  And two women had these regal names, well, one of them was regal, the other was trouble.  Those names stuck with me, and low and behold, I had an idea for a novel.

So, I am making that come into being.  It is such big fun.  Little jokes come at me faster than I can write them down.  Characters show up, unaccounted for.  The last one: A seven-foot-tall Masaai, wearing a steel grey suit and a flame red shirt and tie, hand made in Germany.  Plot twists come early in the morning.  My title:  Valley of Wicked Surprise

I've written for years,  More essays and non-fictions stories than I can count.  I had to work ever so hard at all of them.  I'm smart enough, but trust me, in my local writing groups there are people who beat me hands down, all of them in fact.  This kind of writing comes easy,  I might be made for it.

Wish me luck.

   Plot points.  You want to be able to move them around for while.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Getting A Little Older

I’m looking for the wise way, the third way, although mere cleverness is often enough. Now I’m learning by Braille, feeling my way through. I am coming into my kitty, napping, and knitting years with a tenderized heart. My edges have softened; I've lost boundary or two. Not everything that shows up or slows down is expected or intended.

I've left my hurry behind.

I've forgotten half of what I knew; now I'm not at all sure it was the right half. Body parts slide south at an alarming rate. The bright, shinny penny is just that—a penny. I'm more likely to be grumpy and less likely to be quiet about it. Things have to be simpler or I don't care.

Or I don’t get it.

What really matters to me—really matters. I'm still interested in politics. That requires some yelling at the television. I think my last blast was somewhere in the vicinity of “you slimy bastard.” Or “you egregious fruitcake.” Maybe there was a “You poopy-faced, doo-doo head.” That too. I don't know if the politicos are emotionally defective or if they are plainly nuts. Or I am.

I sort it out, but it doesn't stay sorted.

I'd always thought our last decades would be easier.

But I was wrong and how. I make things complicated; I interfere a little bit, I wing it instead of working on it. My needs are entirely different than the ones I had planned on. I stand mute with surprise, waiting for the chaos and the confusion to clear—and they don’t—always or entirely. I have my aging body and my usual mind, but I’m taking them places that require deep tissue adjustment.

It's a little bit past midnight. This would be terrifying, except that it is also
remarkably, resoundingly sweet. Go figure. 

There are no maps to safety.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Confessions of a Dismal Dieter

If God or your Mama didn't make it, leave it alone.

Controlling your weight is a good thing.  Losing a few pounds now and then is a joy. Getting back into your skinny jeans? True love.  But dieting, our national pastime, is big trouble.  Our hearts aren't the only thing that are heavy.

Here's why we worry about food  and diets.  In many instances, the research is incomplete or non-existent. We don't know what happens to us when we are on those untested regimes. You can trust programs like Weight Watchers, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, or Dr. Oz. But some diets are dangerous, difficult, or of dubious result.

So I've dieted, off and on, for 44 years, dieted my weight up to 210 pounds.  So you can see that I was dismal at it.  Since I've stopped dieting, I've lost about half of the weight I needed to lose. It took me two-and-a-half years.   I'm lighter than I've been in 20 years.  Go figure.

The goal was to learn how to eat in a reasonable, sustainable way that enhances health and life over a long period of time.

But here is the part I had to learn: we're hard-wired with spiritual, social, and familial needs and expectations that, sometimes, are satisfied only with food. Really good food.  Which is why it is so hard to lose weight. Most diets don't come close to addressing those ramifications, and our diets fail us when those needs aren't met.

It turns out that dieting is one way to be cruel to ourselves.  Starving ourselves is acceptable in our society—still mean, though.   

Just wanted the Brothers and Sisters to know.  

So, not everything out there is safe or sane: 

1.  Beware of faux foods. Sometimes the food industry produces foods that are chemical stand-ins for the real thing; fake foods. Often they are created and sold on the cheap.  Way cheap.  Those are awful.  They have a metallic or a citrus tang; or they might taste like cardboard.  They might be cardboard. Yogurt cups under 100 calories might not be yogurt at all. Orange drinks that aren't made from oranges; blueberry bits that are not blueberries; chicken nuggets without chicken. 
If you eat faux foods, you are not getting the nutritional profile you want and need. They can be calorie-laden or calorie-free, but they are questionable. We don't know what they might be doing to us. Eat real food. “Food is an important part of a balanced diet,” says Fran Lebowitz.  

2. Beware of foods that strip out all the calories.  A calorie won't hurt you.  It's the basic measurement of energy in food; we all require them, lots of them, actually. It's better to focus on getting the foods you need for high performance and then move or exercise more. 
Here's the nasty little secret: you gain back all the weight you lost, and a little more besides, if you lose weight on too few calories. When the body wants to eat, it wants to eat, especially after a period of starvation. There is little you can do about that. You think that you can, but you can't.  You will eat and eat all the wrong foods in the wrong amounts at the wrong times.  That's not as fun as you might think. 
What we need is a healthy, safe and sane approach. Michael Pollan believes, “High-quality food is better for your health.” Even if there are some calories attached to that. 

3. Beware of diets that leave out whole food groups.  If you leave out the sugar, you also leave out chocolate-more's the pity.  If you leave out all the carbs, entirely, you might not sleep—ever.  Or think.   Then there are the headaches. Moreover, your brain, which functions on carbohydrates, isn't being fed. You not only feel foggy, forgetful, and a little stupid, you are foggy, forgetful, and a little stupid. If you leave out meat, you leave out B vitamins, water-soluble vitamins that help with cell metabolism. You can see how that might be trouble. Food allergies are real, and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease have their antecedents in food.  And then there are moral questions asked by vegetarians. 
But here is the clincher, if you leave out a food group you have to find foods that replace the nourishment that you require. Some of those replacement “health” foods are dubious, both in taste and in nutritional content.  Turkey bacon?  Some people like it; I do not.  Calvin Trillin was not a fan of that strategy. “Health food makes me sick,” he said.
If you are worried about gluten, make sure you really do have an unhealthy reaction to it. Otherwise, you'll never get to eat a wonderful piece of bread again-food that has such deep, rich spiritual and cultural attachments.  Eat a gluten free diet for a couple of weeks, if you are worried, and see how you feel.  It might not make much of a difference. Only a few recent studies indicate gluten sensitivity might exist, but many physicians don't yet accept that it's real, and, further, there's no accepted medical test for it.  Of course, celiac disease is real and serious, and you need your doctor's help with that.

4. Beware of punitive attitudes toward sugar.  There are people who shouldn't have much sugar. True enough.  But white carbs are the terrorists of the moment. (It was cholesterol in the 1980s and that was a fizzle.)  And honestly, too much sugar impairs your health.  If you get up in the morning, drizzle a cup of syrup over your pancakes, have a sweet roll mid-morning, drink a high octane Coke at lunch, a candy bar for late afternoon break, and then a big dessert after dinner; you are over-doing the sugar, which might qualify as an addiction. 
But if you limit your sugar consumption to Christmas or Valentine's, for instance, maybe sprinkle in a couple birthdays, and then you have a gloriously festive treat on those days, chances are you won't be over-doing it.  You are putting a serious perimeter around the sugar, yet you are honoring and relishing the great cooks and the wondrous foods that make up our celebrations.   That makes enormous sense. 
Our matriarchs, and sometime patriarchs, bake desserts that are splendid, purely splendid; handmade treats that use ingredients we adore-that we recognize, that we know their histories and their neighborhoods. Butter.  (No longer the bad guy in the food world.)
No-sugar advocates lump the stuff you get at a cut-rate bakery in with your mama's apple pie or an exquisite piece of wedding cake.  Not the same; and not fair.  One feeds you; and one does not. Save your sweet calories for those truly magnificent gifts. Watch the portion size. “Never eat more than you can lift,” Miss Piggy advises. You'll be all right.

5. Beware of your hungers.  Our hungers are mysterious.  Oh, we're clear about cherries and mom's pot roast, but sometimes we're hungry late at night and we don't know what we are hungry for.  We're pretty sure, however, that it isn't in our fridge.  And it might not be. 
We have genuine hungers. We know what to do about that. ”Unlike curing cancer or heart disease, we already know how to beat hunger: food,” mused Mario Batali
But we also might be hungry for community, family, faith, friendship and romance, which all count here; we might be hungry for achievement that really matters to us; or we might be worried, distracted, aroused, or angry. We tend to soothe those feelings with high-caloric treats, setting us up for a weight gain and the problems that go with that.  
“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalms sing. That helps with every hunger more than you can imagine. We get shaky and needy, particularly if we haven't connected with God for a while. We all have adamant needs for the Numinous, for the Holy One, for Love.
We can figure out what we're hungry for, sometimes, by journaling, prayer, or by talking to good friends; but those issues might be trickier or deeper, hidden in the folds of some very bad business-perhaps addictions or abuse, bad bum luck, or wretched attitudes. Then we'll need a counselor to help with understanding, a pastor to help with forgiveness, and a dietician to help us sort it out, so that it stays sorted. 

Here's the Best I Can Do:  I eat high quality breakfasts and lunches with lots of veggies and fruits, whole grains, some protein. Snacks are usually yogurt or nut bars.  Then I enjoy a delicious, familiar, family dinner, with a serving of potato, rice, corn, or pasta, coming from within my own tradition.  That lovely food feeds all kinds of hungers. This is where foods begins to sooth and sustain people in healthy ways. Of course, fresh is best.  Of course, eating lightly is one of the ways we can very quickly and very dramatically feel better in a lot of instances.

An example, Hispanic families without grandma's tortillas are lost indeed. A family from the South requires grits, sometimes with collard greens and ham hocks.  My grandparents were Anabaptists, Church of the Brethren, cousins of the Amish or Mennonites. So, I require mashed potatoes, farm food of the most rustic sort. I try not to over-do the portions, or eat eleven of them. 
I cut the fats down; instead of a quarter cup of bacon drippings or butter in a recipe, I'll use a tablespoon.  The food still tastes wonderful, with the same yummy-nummy goodness, but it is lighter. I leave the fats in cakes and cookies, but I share them with as many people as I can find.  Turns out to be the same dynamic: I wind up eating not-so-very-much. 

Three years ago, I quit dieting.  And began these healthy practices, which included walks every day. I've lost 40 pounds.

What we really want to be is vital and strong, enjoy a reasonable weight, have a healthy relationship with food.  Trainer/coach, Reid Merrill, calls that his happy spot.  We want food that sustains the day, which comforts us, invigorates us, and delights us. We want to go for a walk. We want a home where people gather together and share wonderful food. Julia Child wrote, “Life itself is the proper binge.” 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kids and Cameras

So, I have an expensive camera, a gift of a good friend, who wanted a newer, smaller, smarter one.  I got the older, bigger, dumber variety.  Although now it's closing in on fifteen years old.  So I missed the precious,  precocious, all too delicate stages.

Last summer, on a fluke, on the way out the door to Vacation Bible School, I picked it up, thinking I could get some great photos of the kids for their parents.  Did that.   But here's what happened:  one of the kids, Cole,  asked me if he could shoot a few pictures.  I said sure, told him how to wait for a few seconds for the camera to focus, and off he went.   That started it.  All of the kids wanted a crack at the camera.  

The first thing that was clear to me was this:  the kids knew WAY more about how to use the camera, they were careful with it, they got great photos. always wore the strap about their neck, which supported the camera.  They took  really fun photos.  Probably because nobody posed for a dang-gone one of them.  So they were natural and graceful, beautiful.  

So I did it again this year, and last Saturday night night, there was another little guy, Mordecai, who was a little bit bored.  Handed him the camera.  He took over 250 photos, in about 20 minutes.

Very fun.  So, this is a photo of Mr. M.  I took it.  I told him to make a funny face.  He's such a sweet kid, this was as adventurous as he got.  That little look takes the heart.

This experience with kids and camera taught me a lot;  about the natural perfection of life, about spontaneous loveliness, about the great good of images, about letting the kids lead you.  Not every lesson is harsh, or takes a long time to learn,  or you have to do it the hard way.  Some things you learn for the purest pleasure of the thing.